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Skewed priorities of govt manifests in low learning levels


By Moin Qazi*
The true teachers are those who help us think for ourselves. – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
The building blocks of a nation are the citizens of its tomorrow. The way these seeds will sprout will always depend on the way you choose to water them. India’s education sector is one of the largest sunrise sectors in the economic and social development of the country. India’s education sector has expanded rapidly in the last decade but the quality of learning remains pathetic on account of unimaginative and misguided policies. The purpose of education has to be, to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future.
The latest Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2018 – the most authentic barometer of India’s educational health – shows that its findings are not inspiring, and in some cases quite dismal. The fragile foundation of basic education augurs a dim horizon for India’s future human capital. The students are not able to learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic and do not meet even elementary mathematics standards.
While enrolment has improved sharply since 2006 for both boys and girls, not only at the primary but also in the 11-14 age group, literacy and numeracy skills remain dismally below par. The ASER survey covered 5.46 lakh children in the age group 3-16 across 596 districts. What is alarming is the decline in reading and arithmetical abilities at the Class VIII level since 2012, with government schools faring worse than private ones: more than a quarter of all children at this level cannot read a Class II text, while over half of all children cannot do division (three digits by a single digit number). Seen along last year’s ASER survey on learning abilities of the 14-18 age group, those about to enter the workforce, it would seem that India’s ‘demographic dividend’ is turning into a sour joke.
These figures are a serious concern in a country where only 74 per cent of its 1.2 billion inhabitants are literate, making India home to the largest illiterate population in the world. We all know that a sound and productive education system needs to focus on science, math engineering and technology — the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future. Inefficient teaching methods, such as rote learning, which focuses on memorisation as opposed to critical reasoning, are still widespread at the primary and secondary school level. The rote teaching methodology has demonstrated shortcomings. Studies by the Programme for International Students Assessment, an OECD initiative, and Wipro, found that students at the primary and secondary school level have fallen back in math, science and reading literacy in recent years.
The skewed priorities of the government in this vital sector manifest in low learning levels. The Sustainable Development Goals include a commitment to provide every child with access to free primary and secondary education by 2030. While we are on the right course, our obsession with universal coverage of education has compromised the quality of learning. It is time that India moves beyond a singular focus on enrollment numbers and grapples with the problem of poor quality.
The usually parroted reasons for the poor standard of education are teacher absenteeism, poor student attendance, bad infrastructure, inadequate teacher preparation programmes, and rote learning practices. The most common refrain is: “The ones who understand education are not empowered while the ones empowered have no idea about education”. While these issues are valid, they do not fully explain the learning crisis apparent in our classrooms.
More Indian children are in school today than ever before, but the quality of public schools has sunk to abysmally low levels, as government schools have become the reserve of children at the very bottom of India’s social ladder. The RTE Act has been quite successful in achieving three broad objectives: higher enrolment, lower dropout and completion of mandatory basic education.
The present-day education reformers believe that market solutions and technology can remedy the situation. They blame the proponents of status quo of failing to leverage the benefits that technology has brought to other sectors such as health, travel, financial services and communications. Many of them advocate disruptive innovations, primarily through online learning. There is a strong belief that real breakthroughs can come only through the transformative power of technology or the invisible hand of the market.
The bane of the modern examination system is its regressive testing regimen which we stubbornly refuse to reform. Exams are no longer a metric for the test of learning or intelligence. Instead, they have degenerated into an awfully pernicious ritual designed to produce compliant drones who can regurgitate facts faithfully. What we test is the acquisition of a narrow collection of facts, not whether children have the skills for a fruitful employment or the ingredients for a gainful adulthood. Children are being coaxed into learning merely to pass tests. Schools are not fostering love for learning. Moreover, they do not inculcate the all-round skills they need when they leave the portals of learning to the world of competition outside. Real education is more about wide reading, deep thinking and asking hard questions rather than simply reproducing crammed answers faithfully. Formal teaching needs to be supplemented by in-school pull-out programmes, after-school tutoring, and summer camps supervised by NGOs with emphasis on non-conventional innovative pedagogies.
Much of the malaise in the realm of public education has less to do with salaries and more to do with lack of accountability and corruption in recruitments and transfers of teachers. The government schools have not been able to attract good talent. The stark reality is that India is not getting even a modest return on its investment in the education sector.
Teacher salaries in government schools are relatively high in India, at three times per capita income compared to China, where it is about the same as per capita income. However, learning outcomes are better in private schools where average teacher salaries and costs per student are less. A break-up of government spending shows that only 0.8 percent goes towards capital expenditure, while 80 percent goes towards teachers’ salaries, leaving little to be spent on infrastructure creation.
Formal teaching needs to be supplemented by in-school pull-out programmes, after-school tutoring and summer camps supervised by NGOs with emphasis on non-conventional innovative pedagogies. Much of the malaise in the realm of public education has less to do with salaries and more to do with lack of accountability and corruption in recruitments and transfers of teachers. The stark reality is that India is not getting even a modest return on its investment in the education sector. Education should combine just the right amount of physical adventure and intellectual stimulation. The most effective approaches are those that foster bonds of care between teachers and their pupils. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can replicate.
India must reorient its education policy which is very results oriented, very system oriented, is very policy oriented; just not too child oriented. it risks squandering the future of millions of children, as well as the entire country’s economic prospects Formal teaching needs to be supplemented by in-school pull-out programmes, after-school reading classes and summer camps by voluntary organisations using innovative pedagogies. There has to be a direct teacher-development pipeline and evaluating systems for monitoring and upgrading teaching skills. There is a dearth of ideas for reform to address fundamental flaws in the system.
India’s emphasis on rote learning and its rigid examination system do not encourage creative thinking. instead of just focusing on results learning should also foster intellectual, spiritual and social growth more Indian children are in school today than ever before, but the quality of public schools has sunk to abysmally low levels, as government schools have become the reserve of children at the very bottom of India’s social ladder. According to the World Development Report 2018 “Learning to Realise Education’s Promise”, India ranks second from the bottom after Malawi in a list of 12 countries where some Grade 2 students were found to be unable to read a single word from a short text. India also tops the report’s list of seven countries in which some Grade 2 students could not calculate simple two-digit subtractions.
The fourth Industrial Revolution is going to be a major test for the education system focused on reciting facts and performing formulaic calculations—precisely the areas where humans cannot compete with intelligent machines. With all of our technological developments, human ingenuity and creativity remain unmatched. We should capitalise on it and give our young people the opportunity to use their innate advantages as effectively as possible.
Education needs more champions than health and environmental advocates because it is one rising tide that can lift all the boats. Since, education has more room for innovation than any other development sector, there is a unique opportunity for social entrepreneurs. We need to transform curriculum and teaching practices to focus less on rote learning or straightforward calculation and more on relevant skills, like communication, reasoning ability, problem-solving and reasoning ability, and critical and independent thinking. We are under an illusion that our children are digital savvy but more often their knowledge is only screen-deep. If young people are to be empowered citizens, they will need to understand how technology affects every aspect of our life. Greater tech literacy will be essential to ensure that the human implications of the ongoing fourth Industrial Revolution are positive.
If India is to truly rise as a global economic power, the policymakers and education specialists must focus its efforts on developing its public schools into a world-class education system. Catchy announcements like ‘blackboard to digital boards’ will have relevance only when we translate rhetoric into commitment and into genuine action. Goals without actionable strategies are just good intentions. The proof should come by first addressing the fundamental concerns of public education .Nelson Mandela famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”Adequate resources, higher standards for teachers and the flushing out of corruption must all be part of a reform package that seeks to make Indian education the nation’s top priority.

*Development sector

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